Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Official Black Owl Review of "Cloud Atlas."

I’m writing this right now in 2012 on a 2008 Macbook because a guy named Ed Yarborough bought a southern Arizona radio station in 1992.  Oh, and because of a butterfly ballot in Florida in 2000.

See, I worked for an FM rock station in Sierra Vista, Arizona starting in 1990, but in mid-1992 the competition purchased us outright.  There was talk that we would not be fired, and the format wouldn’t change, but I wasn’t buying that.  I was 20 years old and already had a wife and baby; I was not going to base the ability to feed my son on the word of a small town media mogul.  So, I joined the Army.

In 2000, the butterfly ballot in Florida was arguably responsible for the selection of the President.  Three years later, the winner of that dispute invaded a country in the Middle East.  The War would go on for the next nine years.

In 2008, I returned from my second deployment to that Middle Eastern country, and with extra money earned during deployment purchased the very laptop upon which I now type four years later.  (It’s a Mac; she’ll last forever.)

So here’s this chain of seemingly unrelated events that can be traced back from my present to my past, or forward from the 20 year old boy I was to the 40 year old man I am; I am who I am because of events like this chained together through my life. 

And, I have interacted with people: an out of work actor from New York who took a temp job as a translator for the Army in Bosnia; a man with a Doctorate in Physics who took an enlistment in the US Army to expedite his citizenship (and was still only an E4); a former member of the clergy who left the Church in anger; a woman I replaced in not one but TWO assignments through the years who happened to have graduated from my High School thirteen years before me. 

All the ripples they made in my life and service, all there because of events or people in their own lives like those that influenced me in a repeating cycle of cause and effect running back through the people around us, and our own forbearers.  Again, I am here in part because someone named Forrester decided to leave his home town and go to England in the 1300s, and then that person’s descendent—now going by Foster—decided to leave that home and head for a new continent in the late 1700s. 

These ripples, these connections, this web of human interaction and action and the consequences thereof: that is the central theme of the film “Cloud Atlas.”

 Is the film “about” reincarnation?  No, I don’t think so.  It would be easy to say yes, and any given character played by a single actor (Tom Hanks alone plays no less than six characters, and Jim Sturgess seven!) is intended to be that person reborn, or anyone who shares the comet shaped birthmark is indeed a soul returned.  IN places, characters react as if they remember one another from each story.  Rather, in retrospect I think that’s almost just a red herring.  The idea isn’t the actor; it’s the theme behind characters who recur between the six different stories.  In the final (chronological) story, Hugo Weaving plays not just the heavy, but also seemingly a figment of Tom Hanks’ goat herder’s imagination.   Not nearly as disturbing as Weaving’s gender switching portrayal of a Ratchet-like nurse in a 2012 rest home in England.  Point is, that nurse was not reincarnated into a hallucinatory devil… it’s the, well the character of the character.  If the familiarity between 1970s Tom Hanks and Halle Berry does come from the idea their souls were together elsewhen, then it is a bold statement, as they truly come together in the final story.  It speaks to an amazing idea I have myself toyed with that if the soul does return to another living existence in this world, there is no reason it should be constrained by linear time; my next life could be a thousand years ago.

As with any great work of art, the film’s subject to interpretation of course; perhaps it was exactly reincarnation, but to me the joy was watching the connections between the stories play out, the seeds planted on a ship in the 1850s coming to bloom in a future some 100 years after a cataclysmic fall of civilization… a single object affects two men thousands of years apart, but one that wouldn’t be there without the connected threads of history stretching back and forth throughout time.  A struggle in the mid 22nd Century provides a religion for the distant future.  A book written in one time by a character provides another time frame’s character a distraction.  This connectivity speaks to the human condition whether one accepts the spiritual overtones or not: we are connected; all of us, and the actions of any of us can affect all of us. 

How connected are the six stories?  Some more strongly than others, some explicitly, some implicitly (is the composer’s dream in the 1930’s really of Somni~451’s Fabricant cafĂ© in Neo-Seoul two hundred years later?  Has Luisa Rey in 1975 really heard the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” somewhere before?) but it may be a simple statement that history—great and small—is a cycle.  Anyone who’s read Strauss and Howe’s work on the repeating 80-year cycle of American history can understand that*.  As situations happen again (this has all happened before…) we see whether or not humanity has the capacity to learn from what has gone before.  Keep in mind as well, any one of these stories could work independently.  Separately, each would be a fine diversion; woven together they get to what really gave me joy when watching this film.

It’s about the art of storytelling.  The film opens and closes on a wizened storyteller relating some series of events which may or may not include these tales.  Each timeframe is about someone who is themselves trying to have a story told: be it an abolitionist’s trip to the south seas; a young composer telling the love of his life about the work he is doing at the feet of a more famous (but fading) composer; a journalist getting to the bottom of some form of nuclear power conspiracy in the 70s; a publisher in 2012 relating his forced incarceration in a rest home as a book; a manufactured human in the 22nd Century trying to tell the world she feels, is alive, loves; two people from entirely different survivor cultures post-apocalypse trying to tell those who already left Earth what has happened to those who stayed behind; and again to our ancient raconteur putting it in context.  The film itself is masterful storytelling that steps into the realm of metafiction to celebrate masterful storytelling.  I could get into the set pieces—any one of which would be worthy of notice if the segment were itself a film—or the makeup taking well known actors and transforming them across ethnicity or gender to make sure we understand the most important connection these characters all have: They are human. 

I have spoken elsewhere about my feelings of humanism driven not in spite of, but rather by my faith.  These stories, this film, spoke to me on that level, not trying to hide the ugly side of human existence, but still exalting what we can do when we bother to acknowledge our interconnectedness.  It defies the idea that natural order is one group over another, but rather that natural order is…us.  We the living, all God’s children, the whole of the race, whichever system’s phraseology you want to use.  “Cloud Atlas” is indeed an abridged atlas of the geography of human history, the hills, the valleys, the obstacles, the roads, and those too are us. 

It is not a film for everyone, and it does play a little long in some places.  However, it’s the first time in a long time (dare I say since the Wachowskis gave us the original “The Matrix”) I have seen a movie that strove for true originality and didn’t just regurgitate the formula labeled “popular film.”  I can’t wait to see it again…multiple times.

*If you have not read “Generations: The History of America’s Future from 1584 to 2069” you absolutely should. Published in 1992 with a strong and strengthening economy, the authors predicted a new depression would start somewhere between 2007 and 2012.  The book is a fascinating study of just how much we are slaves to history. 

(Images property of Warner Brothers)